Claudia Rankine on Confronting Whiteness Head-On Through Language
Claudia Rankine cuts to the chase. She does not mince her words. This forthrightness has long been her way, and in large part, it comes from her deep literary education. In the 1980s, as a student at Williams College, Rankine—who grew up in the Bronx after moving to the United States at age 7 from her native Jamaica—admired poets who wrote frankly and passionately about specific moments they had lived in or through. These included Paul Celan, with his haunting, heartwrenching descriptions of the Holocaust, and Cesar Vallejo, for his profound discourse on injustice and human suffering. Viewing this work as part of a larger conversation about a broken world, she read these texts as clear and cutting provocations for change. Reflecting on her own experiences, Rankine began applying this approach to her own writing with the goal of, as she says on this episode of Time Sensitive, “[figuring] out what language can do, and how you can use the language to fully engage with the experience of being in the world.”
Much of Rankine’s recent work analyzes white supremacy in America, looking closely at its subtle and not-so-subtle manifestations, personal and systemic. In her three plays and six collections of poetry, Rankine, who is currently a professor in the creative writing program at New York University, applies a forthright attention to working through subjects of tragedy and despair, maternity and motherhood, selfhood and individualism, and everyday instances of racial discrimination in ways that shrewdly illuminate the inner workings of American society. Never prescriptive, she leaves room for audiences to consider their own prejudices and privileges, and to understand more intimately where they come from and the systems in which they participate and belong.
Some of the experiences Rankine describes are personal, such as those in her 2019 New York Times Magazine essay “I Wanted to Know What White Men Thought About Their Privilege. So I Asked.” Rankine recalls an encounter with a white man at an airport who, after learning that she was teaching at Yale at the time, tells her that his son wasn’t admitted after applying early, saying that “It’s tough when you can’t play the diversity card,” and with another who cuts in front of her in a line for first class. In detailing her attempts to probe the assumptions made by her acquaintances, she makes palpable the awkwardness, the ignorance, the fear, and the frustration inherent in these interactions. (A selection of these conversations feature in Rankine’s 2020 play Help, and the article reappears, in an expanded and annotated version, in her 2020 book Just Us: An American Conversation.)
Rankine’s writing also sheds light on others’ experiences. For her 2014 book, Citizen: An American Lyric—a finalist for the National Book Award and the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry—Rankine asked friends and colleagues to tell her about moments when someone said or did something that reduced them to their race, and used these stories, along with her own memories and reflections, to inform narratives for prose poems. Elsewhere, through other stories she has written for magazines, Rankine describes how racism plays out in pop culture, such as in the lives of Beyoncé and Serena Williams.
Often, Rankine seems more interested in questions than answers, and in unpacking the thought processes implied by a given response. In 2016, she co-founded The Racial Imaginary Institute, which prompts artists and institutions to consider their racialized positioning, after issuing an open letter to writers asking them about race and the creative imagination. In “Constructions of Whiteness,” a class she taught at Yale from 2016 to 2018, many of her students interviewed white people on campus or in their families to learn more about their perspectives on U.S. history through the lens of whiteness. For Rankine, too much is at stake to not have these kinds of conversations.
On this episode, Rankine talks with Spencer about why Americans tend to avoid talking about whiteness and white supremacy, racism in professional tennis, and what liminal spaces can reveal about white privilege.
Rankine speaks about why Americans tend to not talk about whiteness and the nuanced complexity of terms such as “white fragility” and “white supremacy.”
Rankine explains the events that led her to co-found The Racial Imaginary Institute. She also discusses liminal spaces, particularly airports and airplanes, as ideal environments to engage conversations about race.
Rankine details how racism has played out for star tennis players such as Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka, and the powerful ways in which they have confronted it.
Rankine talks about how Covid-19 impacted her most recent play, Help. She also reads her 2020 poem “Weather.”
Rankine briefly recalls her childhood in Jamaica and upbringing in the Bronx. She also speaks about the influence of poets including Louise Glück, Paul Celan, and William Butler Yeats.
Rankine discusses the art of using language to connect with readers in visceral ways while simultaneously making space for their own thoughts.
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SPENCER BAILEY: Joining me in the studio today is the poet, essayist, and playwright Claudia Rankine. She is also co-founder of The Racial Imaginary Institute and a professor in the creative writing program at New York University. Welcome, Claudia.
CLAUDIA RANKINE: Hi!
SB: I wanted to begin today’s conversation with a quote by the theorist Saidiya Hartman on time. Which you reference in your book Just Us. She says, “One of the things I think is true, which is a way of thinking about the afterlife of slavery in regard to how we inhabit historical time, is the sense of temporal entanglement, where the past, the present, and the future are not discrete and cut off from one another.”
I wanted to bring this up, because, thinking about time and a life, really, as temporal entanglement, and in considering this quote when it comes to understanding time and temporal entanglement, what comes to mind for you?
CR: Well, I think that… Thinking about time as a U.S. citizen is really—it makes me smile, because so much of the efforts in the United States are towards trying to sever time from now and yet continue the practices of before now. So the idea that critical race theory should not be taught in schools, for example, is a way of saying we don’t want history following us into now, but we do want voter suppression. So it’s a constant irony of turning our back on history, and then reaching back and grabbing anti-Blackness, and reinstating it at every turn. So, it makes me smile. [Laughs]
SB: Well, and this reference to “afterlife of slavery,” this terminology, you reference it in other pieces, too. In “Daughter” in Just Us you write, “We are a sad lot churning inside the repetitions and insistences of the ‘afterlife of slavery.’” And last year, in a story about Beyoncé for Harper’s Bazaar, you referenced it. In the preface to your 2019 play The White Card, you note, “The afterlife of white supremacy is all our problem.”
I thought this would be helpful for us to go back to 1619, and to the Naturalization Act of 1790. How do you think about this churn of time—these centuries—and really what is this formalization of white supremacy? The fact that, as you’ve written, “white men have held almost all the power in this country for four hundred years.”
CR: Well, you know Bryan Stevenson, who I adore, he said that the North won the war, but the South won the narrative. And I think the narrative that was set in place is the narrative that we continue with. So the idea of having a Black woman in the Supreme Court four hundred years later is still something that people are wishing for, or rebelling against, with all their heart and soul. And that has to do with white supremacy’s insistence on holding on to all the power, and all the representation, and all of the mechanisms that allow change to happen or not happen. And you know it’s Putin-esque. [Laughs]
SB: Well, it was striking watching, today, Chuck Grassley interview her, and there are these … just a sea of white. And then the camera turns.
CR: Exactly. Did you see the image of her standing at the podium, and a room full of white men with their cameras?
CR: Help! [Laughs]
SB: And so striking, too, when you consider it in relation to our most recent justice who was appointed.
CR: Exactly. I wonder if appointed is the right word. Placed in position. [Laughs]
CR: Entangled. What is it? Manchurian Candidate. [Laughs]
SB: I’m sure you get asked this question quite a bit, but for me it seems…. And it seems so obvious. And yet I’m sure to many listeners, particularly white listeners, they maybe haven’t come to terms with this question, which is, why do you think America broadly tends to not talk about whiteness? When white supremacy is so foundational to our everyday lives—to the foundation of this country. I mean, there’s this sort of psychological need almost to not talk about whiteness.
CR: I think that the idea is to normalize whiteness and consequently normalize white supremacy. And because of Nazism, you understand that people will understand that the violence associated with it will come with it here as well. And so people repel against the use of the terminology, even as they’re constantly supporting the implementation of politicians who use that word, to quote our former president.
And so I think it’s an insistence on whiteness as benevolence and refusing the genocide, refusing the violence, refusing the history, and moving on—what was the Joan Didion term?—“magical thinking,” that you can go forward with this notion that good intentions just allowed you to live in that neighborhood, and to go to that school, and to be able to walk down the street without racial profiling coming towards you in any form whatsoever. And I guess I can’t fault them for wanting to pretend that their privileges are not privileges.
SB: Yeah, you make it to the Supreme Court because you “work your butt off.”
CR: Right, exactly, Mr. Kavanaugh. [Laughs]
SB: You mentioned white benevolence. There are so many terms like this. You know, “white privilege,” which was popularized in the late eighties, “white fragility,” “white defensiveness.” A lot of these have almost become like stand-ins or catchalls or ways of kind of skirting around what should be a conversation. How should we navigate this world when these terms are used in this way that’s almost like…?
CR: Well, I think with everything, the terms have usefulness. They’re a shortcut to … certain dynamics. And conversations are necessary sometimes, and sometimes a phrase like “white fragility” is useful. For me, the difficulty comes when the phrase becomes the conversation, because then you lose all of the complexity that’s inherent in the desire for two people to engage in reciprocal recognitions—and to be able to move forward, you have to really get into the complexities to know where the differences are, and to know what the third way is. And you can’t find a third way if we’re going to start out in the received language. So I think we have to be willing to get messy, make mistakes in conversation.
SB: And this makes me think of just the term “white supremacy” itself, and this word “supremacy.” In the work you do, have you unpacked that word “supremacy” and thought about it in terms of the phrase? And why do you think there tends to be this white aversion to this idea of white supremacy when it’s right there staring us all in the face?
CR: Because of hierarchical notions of who is higher and who is lower, and you know, we all know that we’re not supposed to like eugenics. We’re not supposed to sign up for that club. [Laughs] And yet that’s what it is. The poet Paul Celan said, “Don’t split the yes from the no.” And again, we have to be inside the messiness of understanding that supremacy and hierarchical categories are the same thing. And yes, if I think my white child deserves to go to Harvard over everybody else, that’s hierarchical thinking. And that’s white supremacy. And that’s a sense of feeling like my child should have what my child has always had, without asking, “Why have white children always had that?” And not even all white children. We’re in certain class categories now.
So I get that nobody wants to say “I’m a white supremacist,” but you have to think, how did you get where you are? [Laughs] Why can you use the term racism and not use the term “white supremacy”? How do you have racism without whites who believe they’re not better than people of color? How does that work? How can you say, “I believe that Blacks have been treated badly, but there’s no white supremacy?” Then how were they treated badly? Who was in the room when it was happening? Who set up the companies, and where is the systemic racism coming from? And how is it continuing?
SB: And I also think here about socioeconomics and class, and how certain people also don’t want to identify as rich, but it’s like, you’re rich.
CR: Exactly, exactly.
SB: I don’t understand where that comes from.
CR: Yeah. This country is so interesting around—nobody talks about money. I remember being in college, where my friends would say—white friends would say—“I don’t have any money,” and then break would come, and they’d be in Switzerland. I’m like, hmm, how did you get there? You swam? [Laughs] So there’s a real disconnect in this culture. There’s a desire to pretend that equity exists. That equality is equality. And we all sign on to it by not challenging and engaging these assumptions.
SB: To get back to the subject of time, you’ve previously noted that there are these different ways of framing time and space. And it does connect to this conversation very much. There’s “imagined” time and space, “lived” time and space, “legislative” time and space. I was hoping you might unpack these a little bit.
CR: Well, you know, in some ways I don’t think that they’re disconnected, because one of the things that irritates me to know—and I teach poetry, for example, and I’ll have students who say, “Well, my other professors said that they’re not really interested in ‘political poetry.’” And when my students say that to me, I know they’re talking about their white professors. And then I think, what do those white professors think they’re writing? They’re putting forward a way of life that has political implications in it.
CR: But to them, they’re writing about normal life. Normal life to whom? And based on what? What legislation allowed you to be able to walk in your garden all afternoon naming flowers?
SB: That’s pretty good.
CR: Some of them are doing that.
And so I do think that legislative time is tied to normal time. That we’ve been brought up to believe that you can compartmentalize the different aspects of life, when in fact they’re all tied together. And you give certain people certain things. Black people are too political, and white people are apparently too normal. You’re just like, what is this craziness that is being called actual education?
SB: Too this, too that.
CR: Yeah. If it didn’t have ramifications—politically, socially, economically—then it would just be funny. [Laughs] But, unfortunately, it trickles down.
SB: Eleven years ago, you began the Racial Imaginary project when you composed an open letter about race and the creative imagination. I was hoping you could tell me a little bit about how this project evolved into The Racial Imaginary Institute. And also, for you, just the importance of the term itself, the “racial imaginary.”
CR: It started—as many things start—accidentally, incidentally. I was teaching, and a student came to me and said that a colleague, a fellow professor, had written a book and they had portrayed Venus and Serena [Williams] in racist ways. And I said, “Well, maybe we should just ask him to come and talk about his choices and why he did it.” And so I did. I asked him if he would come and he came, and he just yelled at us, and there was no conversation. [Laughs] And the whole thing just sort of blew up.
And at that time I realized we have no practice talking about how race functions, and [how] racism functions, and white supremacy functions in this world. We have a lot of practice talking about Black people needing things, apparently. But no practice talking about white involvement in that need. And so we’re moving forward with a kind of imaginary playbook about racism and without racists. And so I thought it would be interesting for all of us—all of us meaning writers, at the time—to start to consider how we think about race in our work, writing about race. When we use the first person, are we talking about the self as a Black self, or white self, or Asian self, or Latinx self, or whatever? And so I put out this call and got an incredible response. And that led to the [Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind] anthology we put together.
And then I thought, if you think back to the Harlem Renaissance, or even the Black Arts Movement, there was always a sense that that was a cultural shift towards Black people thinking away from whiteness. And I thought, what if we all began to think about our racialized positioning—aggressively thinking about that. So I spoke to a number of people, and we got together and started The Racial Imaginary Institute. And it’s very important that you say, “The Racial Imaginary Institute,” because it’s try. And it was like, try to understand what your assumptions and projections are around your own racial, racialized existence. Because white people don’t think they have a race. They think they’re just humanity, and the rest of us have come in from one of those other planets that apparently…. [Laughs]
SB: I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve been in conversation with white friends who say—they’re describing somebody, and describe them as Black. And I’m like, you don’t need to say the color of their skin.
CR: Unless you’re going to always do that. If you’re going to say, “He was speaking to a white person and then an Asian woman came up and then the white guy cut her off, and then….” Tell me the whole thing, but don’t act like there were some people, and then there were some Black people.
SB: In this anthology you’re talking about, there’s a beautiful contribution from Reginald Dwayne Betts, who also recently came on this program. And he asks, “But is the question of writing race simply about reveling in and revealing racial trauma and triumph…? We ask if Black writers write race, as if white writers don’t write race. We write race whether we recognize it or not, because we write of America, and America’s story is still one of race.” This really gets at this idea you explore in so much of your work. Which is that whiteness is this under-explored, under-examined, often not-written-about conversation.
CR: Construction, even. [Laughs]
SB: Why do you think there aren’t more writers—in particular white writers—who want to dig into this area? And if there were to be, what would be some of the things that you could imagine coming out of this dialogue, this conversation—that just sits in the ether—[if] it was actually brought down to the page?
CR: I think—and this is really [just] me thinking; I don’t know what white people think—but I think about the writers who do write about race, like Gertrude Stein, and it’s incredibly racist what she writes. But at the time when she’d write it was like, Yay, Gertrude, you’re writing about Black people. And even though it was racist, it was like, at least you can see that there are Black people around.
I teach “Melanctha” [from Stein’s Three Lives] all the time because, as racist as it is, it tries. It tries. And you go through a life, watching things, seeing things, listening to things, and white people have maintained the position that they constructed race only for Blackness, and not also for whiteness. And so they’ve normalized the idea of whiteness as normal, and made white people people, and then white people believe that. Educated white people believe that.
And it’s so disappointing actually, because you think, Oh, you can be so smart about so many other things, and yet, here, you are bankrupt. And why then should I believe anything that you do? I mean, Shakespeare knew. John Stuart Mill knew. Darwin knew. And suddenly, all these writers in the twentieth, twenty-first century, nineteenth, they seemed not to know that whiteness is constructed with investments.
SB: And artists.
CR: And artists.
SB: I was just at the Faith Ringgold exhibition at the New Museum, and her work—the way she gets in dialogue to this very generation you’re speaking of. The artists, the Algonquin Round Table. This idea of constructed whiteness—and she does it in such a beautiful, simple way that it’s hard not…. It would be very hard to miss. It’s in your face.
CR: Yeah. Well, Titus Kaphar—a friend of Dwayne and myself—has been looking at classical paintings for a long time now, and thinking about the ways in which Black subjects are made invisible even as they’re present in the paintings. Even when they are the focal point of the painting. And it’s fascinating to watch and see how, even in seeing what’s right in front of us, you have art historians writing for years about these paintings and not even mentioning the Black portraitures, the Black people in the paintings. It’s almost like everybody’s been gaslit. And you’re like, what? Is this a movie? [Laughs] Is Hitchcock somewhere around? It’s really astounding.
SB: And part of this is this permeation of what you could call “white space.” It’s just everywhere you go. And also in this essay that I mentioned that Dwayne wrote, he writes, “Race is liminal in America. It is both border and veil.” And reading this, I immediately thought of your New York Times Magazine essay, your writing in Just Us, now your play, Help, which all explore and connect to these very particular liminal spaces. Airports, and planes.
SB: And I was thinking how fascinating, with race [being] this liminal thing in America, to have these conversations in liminal spaces, and to have this notion of time in airports and airplanes—what occurs there physically, psychically, and how that’s the underexplored terrain, I think. What are your thoughts, now that you’ve done these projects and really thought a lot about the time you spent in these particular spaces, what have they revealed to you about time, about race, about whiteness?
CR: Well, I wanted to write in liminal space only initially, pragmatically. It was sort of dead time for me. I’m like, I might as well utilize this time. [Laughs] Instead of just reading a magazine.
But I liked, metaphorically, the idea of being outside where we are. Almost like from the skies, you could look down on the earth and say, “Look what we’re doing. Look at how we’re behaving.” And so, in those waiting areas and on the planes, suddenly I was in relation with people who I don’t normally speak to. I’m not usually sitting next to a bunch of CEOs in my life. So it seemed like an opportunity to talk to people who I don’t normally talk to, and who don’t normally talk to me—who are not seeking me out, believe me. [Laughs]
And so I decided, very self-consciously, to be open to conversation. You can’t make people talk to you, but you can be open to it. And you can have body language that says, Hey, you want to talk? I’ll talk. And not curl up inside a book, which I also do at times. [Laughs] As a kind of shield from the outside world.
I think, if I’m honest, the things that are articulated in these conversations were not so surprising. But it was still interesting to me to break down the thinking that got us to the expected place. Baldwin talks about being interested not in the answer, but in the questions. And how the questions get asked, and how we unfold our own positioning and our own investments in order to arrive at the answer. And so that’s more what I was interested in seeing—how that went around, and where the conversation ended. Sometimes the conversations end before I thought they would end.
And there were certain places people didn’t want to go. They weren’t willing to…. Like, if somebody had, say, voted for Donald Trump, the minute that was broached the conversation was over. It was almost like that vote was also a vote against relationality, in a way. The minute it came up, it came up as a way of saying, “The world I live in does not include you, not even in conversation.” And the conversation would be over. And partly, I think that was projections on—and maybe not projections on—the kind of positioning I would take relative to those kinds of choices. They were probably right. I was in judgment mode, I’m sure, immediately. So maybe good on them. [Laughs]
But I think we have to be able to begin. To be able…. What can I say? To be able to do the kinds of things that Biden seems to be able to do in a way that Obama, say, wasn’t able to do. He clearly is able to get some things passed without the stonewalling that Obama came up against, and that obviously has to do with the fact that he’s a white guy talking with other white guys. But I think we have to start, or else our democracy is for shit—sorry. [Laughs] Because the voting, the legislation—all of it is tied together. They’re not over here, and over there. We have to come to some kind of understanding of what our investments are for this country. Even if we don’t agree on everything. That’s not going to happen if we’re in camps that cannot cross those spaces.
SB: I’m imagining right now this idea of the incredible stories you’d be able to share and tell if you were in the halls of the White House. The work you have written in this trilogy of books—in Citizen, in Just Us, especially with the airports and the planes—imagine what you would hear in the halls of the White House.
CR: Maybe you can tell me what you make of this, because it’s something that’s confounded me a little bit. The people who interviewed Trump first, for example, and knew that he knew about the virus, and waited until they published their book, months later, to make those things public. I find that inhumane somehow, because there are people in there. There are people talking. There are people listening. There are people taking notes. There are people writing books. And then suddenly you find out they knew so much of what was going on, and waited until the publication of the book to tell us, because somehow it makes the book more sellable. The fact that certain information could have saved people’s lives seems not to matter to those people—I’m not naming names, but you can imagine what the books are. Again and again, one is so disappointed by certain people in this culture.
SB: I don’t want to think about [the] 2024 [U.S. presidential election] yet.
CR: I know, I know, I know. I’m really grateful for Barbara Walter and all the work that she’s been doing in terms of communicating how close we are to a civil war in this country. And the fact that we have fallen out of our place in the world as a democratic country.
SB: And a lot of white people have stocked up on guns.
CR: Yeah. Guns and iodine pills, apparently, because they’re afraid Putin is going to blast us with some kind of Chernobyl-something.
SB: I want to go back to another liminal space you’ve explored through your writing: tennis. And particularly Serena Williams. But before we jump into that, do you have a personal connection to tennis? Or was it really [that] Serena became a vehicle for you to explore these much larger systemic issues?
CR: I took lessons and I played, but I did that in order to write about Serena and not the reverse.
CR: My interest in Serena Williams came about because of my husband, actually. He watched golf, and we had a tiny, tiny apartment in New York. I was teaching at Barnard and I had one of those Columbia apartments. It was as big as this room. And so everything he did, I was overhearing, and I’m sure vice versa. And he would watch golf on Sunday afternoons, and the commentators were so racist when talking about Tiger Woods that I thought, If this is happening to Tiger Woods, and they love Tiger Woods, what is happening with Serena and Venus?
And so I started watching tennis to see how the commentators spoke about her, because I would be at my desk grading papers and listening to these commentators say about Tiger Woods, “Is he cheating? Can he do that?” And then, “I think he can’t do that. I think that’s illegal. I think he hit the ball. I don’t think you’re supposed to hit the ball.” And then they brought in a third person. There were two guys, and then they brought in a third, younger guy, and his job, I think his only job was to say, “No, I think Tiger is completely within the rules here. Yeah, I think he is.” [Laughs] It was outrageous. You should go back and listen to some of those early tournaments that he won when he was in his heyday.
That’s what sent me to Serena and Venus, because I thought, He’s a Black guy that they supposedly adore because he can win golf championships in the dark, after the sun has gone down. And so what is happening with these two Black women? And so then I just started watching tennis like nobody’s business.
SB: In your play The White Card, the white character Virginia Compton Spencer, the first line of the play is [her saying], “Serena is a beauty.” And as you mentioned, you’ve written about her for The Times and in your book Citizen. What is it about Serena that carries such a strong fascination with not just tennis viewers, but the very racist people we’re talking about, who say these things—or, is it the umpire?
CR: Yeah. The umpire.
SB: Yeah, or the umpire at the tennis match. Why did people for so long want to see her fail or struggle or…?
CR: Well, I think they want to see Black people fail and struggle. And then you get this woman who is the winningest woman that you’ve ever seen, and who does it with such self confidence and—
CR: In-your-face-ness, and grace, and emotion. She’s emotional. She’s got big emotions, and it’s great. This is not Arthur Ashe, with his low voice and his reasonable appetite for white racism. This is somebody who was like, what?! [Laughs]
SB: Well, I really appreciated how you brought John McEnroe into these stories about her, because I think his perspective on her…. And he was known for his temper on the court.
CR: Which might have been why he was able to identify with her, I think, early on, because he was one of her…. One of the people who I think questioned a lot of the racist moves that were made against her—and they still are making them. She’s not even playing tennis now. We saw that they used Venus’s picture [instead of] hers in The New York Times. And then Jane Campion referred to the Williams sisters as not playing against…. What did she say? “I play against the men and you guys play against….” I don’t know. I’m like, they play against a whole fucking system.
SB: And men, actually. Doubles tennis.
CR: Yeah. But also the system that they have had to negotiate is put in place by men. And I don’t know what she was thinking when she said that.
SB: I appreciate [how] Roxane Gay on Twitter was just like, “She [did] what?”
CR: I know. [Laughs] But she also shows you that white women don’t have a clue. They don’t know how much their own privileges are made possible by white men.
CR: And it’s really disappointing because I love her movies, but I was just like, is that what happens when you speak? Is that what’s going on in your head? Is that how you think?
SB: Well, and Australia clearly has its own—
CR: Yeah, its own issues. Again and again, it’s disappointing, because you just realize that people who are at the top of their field have absolutely no consciousness, no education, when it comes to something so fundamental as racial politics.
SB: I wanted to just read these two sentences from Citizen—a lot of which you write in the second person—and this is about Serena. You write, “Every look, every comment, and every bad call blossoms out of history through her onto you. To understand is to see Serena as hemmed in as any other Black body thrown against our American background.” And I think that those two sentences are important to hear in this context. To really understand the systemic nature of the spectacle that we built around Serena, that the media built around Serena—but the white media [in particular].
CR: Yeah, and that she could win despite it all is incredible. Whatever number she’s at—twenty-three, twenty-two, twenty-three,—it should really be doubled for, I don’t know, like a handicap.
SB: Yeah. There’s this line in The White Card where Charlotte, the Black artist character says, “It seems like our American pastimes are sports and forgetting. We assimilate; we appropriate; we move on.” And I immediately thought of Serena when I read that line, and her ability to just power through all this.
CR: And not, and not. I think we have seen her not be able to power through. We have seen her be frustrated. We have seen her implode. We have seen her be befuddled. And that is one of the reasons why I wanted to write about her, because all of that has happened in front of us. Often, you know it’s happening for many people, in many different ways, all the time. We got glimpses of it with Michelle Obama, for example, when she was first lady. You saw the comments coming, but however she was negotiating it, it was behind closed doors. With Serena, it was out in public. And it was week after week after week after week. And it’s been interesting, more recently, to watch Naomi Osaka negotiate that same territory. Recently, at Indian Wells, somebody yelled racist remarks and she just stopped. And she asked to be able to address the crowd during the match. And they said no, it was unprecedented to do that. And then she lost the match. Her way of dealing with it is so different from Serena’s, so it’s been really interesting to watch this other woman, this other amazing tennis player, be willing to just stop and say, “No.” No. Not “I’m going to power through,” but “No.” And that’s another way to be. And it’s really great to have all the ways out there.
SB: Do you think that Serena and the way that she would get angry publicly has had an impact on players like Naomi? Do you think that there is a sort of generational…?
CR: I think so. I think the Serenas make the Naomis possible. Because I think you have to see someone do something to realize, Oh, okay, I’m not crazy. This is not me. This is what is happening. And then I can choose whatever way I want to negotiate it. And I can do it for myself. And that is what Serena did. And that is what Naomi did. Even though it looks different in terms of how they do it, there’s still…. I definitely think Naomi was watching Serena as she grew up, and she has said as much. And so I think she knows that this is not acceptable and it’s not worth her eating it and taking it in. And that’s really laudable.
SB: Just to stay on tennis for one last thing….
SB: How do you think about time when it comes to tennis? Because there is something that’s so fascinating about the intensity of a match in relation to the limited amount of time on the court, in the stadium. And particularly in the context of this conversation, which has a lot to do with racism endured, racism on display. It’s almost like a vessel for putting it on a stage.
CR: Yeah, no, it’s true. As you were asking that question, I was actually thinking about Rafa[el Nadal] and how they’re always complaining that he takes too much time when he plays.
One of the things that Serena did when she was in her heyday was, she could lose a match and then turn it around, and win it, when you thought she was out of time. Other players, you’re like, Oh, they’ve lost. It’s the middle of the second set; it’s over. With Serena, it was as if she would just focus in, and then she’d turned the match around, and then suddenly she’s winning the match. And then she’s won the tournament. You’re like, wow, how did that happen? And it was like she was making her own time. That she was inside some other frame of reference for how time works. And it was Serena time. [Laughs] It wasn’t like the time for the rest of us. The rest of us are like, Oh, I guess it’s over. Maybe I should go to brunch now or whatever. And suddenly, you’re halfway out the door, and she’s winning again.
She really taught us never to give up. I mean, she really did. And then when she couldn’t or didn’t do it anymore, people were shocked, because we were so used to her being able to turn things around at the last second, and elongating the moment into a third set, into a tie-break. Now she’s 30, it’s just physically…. I think she can’t bring it in that same way.
The other person that seemed to be able to do that when she was younger, but not so much in her [recent] matches, was Coco [Gauff]. Coco, when she first came on the scene, remember, she seemed like she was going to lose. And then suddenly she would turn it around and win matches she wasn’t supposed to win. And so how does that connect with racism? [Laughs] That would be the ideal scenario.
And I think Black people have done that. They have survived when they weren’t supposed to survive. They have outlived things they shouldn’t have outlived. We have, as a community, endured an onslaught of organized legislative personal violence against us as a community category. Look at mass incarceration. Look at the deaths. The dead people in the streets. Look at the unemployment rate. All of it. And yet, we are still here, fighting the good fight. With the number of grassroots organizations—there’s Stacey Abrams, with all of the grassroots organizations connected to her. She basically won the election for Biden. And so that’s the other thing, that if there’s something that gives me hope, it’s really the resilience of people. And specifically in this landscape Black people.
SB: Let’s talk briefly about your play Help, which opened at The Shed in March 2020, only to quickly pause after two performances because of Covid-19. Now here we are, two years later, and it’s up at The Shed again. Does it feel like some sort of strange time warp for you, this… I mean, it was basically this week, two years ago.
CR: Exactly. Plays are so fascinating. You work so hard and they’re up for five weeks. [It’s] like, all of this work and five weeks later, it’s as if it didn’t exist. But we worked really hard, and we had the amazing Roslyn Ruff in the lead for Help. And it opened, and we had two performances. And in that, I felt lucky, because we could see what we had made. It wasn’t like so many other productions that we never got to see. And so we saw, and that was good, and then we went home [laughs] and did whatever we wanted to do for two years. And I have to commend The Shed; at the time they said, “We are committed to putting this up again as soon as we can.” And I think when they said that, they meant two months from the time it closed, but here we are two years later.
I actually appreciate the time because Help was always, in my mind, the play America wrote. And I was just sort of organizing it. And it opened out to the last two years because structurally, it was already there. We’re in the same America, and America’s making the same moves it made three years ago, now, and it made last year. So the play was able to open out to some of the major moments that happened, like January 6th, which is the big addition to the play. Prior to now, we had white dominance and white supremacy as a symbolic moment in the play. But then all of a sudden, because of the pandemic, we got to see it very clearly. And so that means the play gets to see it very clearly. It doesn’t have to gesture towards it. In that sense, I think we’ve benefited.
SB: What was it—do you think—about the pandemic, this period of time, in relation to what you’re discussing? The fact that we could see it more clearly almost for those of us who were lucky enough to be safe at home. And why did the pandemic…. What were the elements of it, do you think, that heightened this awareness and helped give rise to…. I think a lot of people who had never turned out for Black Lives Matter protests, for example, were turning out.
CR: I think some of that was pragmatic. I think people were suddenly at home. They had time. They were actually sitting on their couches when George Floyd’s death was televised. Twenty-four hours before that, Amy Cooper was doing her thing in Central Park. People were able to make the connections between that moment, and then his death, and [Derek] Chauvin’s behavior and all of it.
And they weren’t also running off to work, and dropping the kids off, and hearing about it two weeks later. So I think it allowed people to process reality, in real time, for one of the first times in a long time. And so consequently, they moved as communities with other communities against police brutality, and violence, and other things. So that was good. The question is, will it continue? We’ll see. Now that everybody is returning to their more public lives.
SB: I was hoping we might take a quick pause and have you read your poem “Weather” here.
SB: Which comes out of this very specific moment that we’re talking about.
On a scrap of paper in the archive is written
I have forgotten my umbrella. Turns out
in a pandemic everyone, not just the philosopher,
is without. We scramble in the drought of information
held back by inside traders. Drop by drop. Face
covering? No, yes. Social distancing? Six feet
under for underlying conditions. Black.
Just us and the blues kneeling on a neck
with the full weight of a man in blue.
Eight minutes and forty-six seconds.
In extremis, I can’t breathe gives way
to asphyxiation, to giving up this world,
and then mama, called to, a call
to protest, fire, glass, say their names, say
their names, white silence equals violence,
the violence of again, a militarized police
force teargassing, bullets ricochet, and civil
unrest taking it, burning it down. Whatever
contracts keep us social compel us now
to disorder the disorder. Peace. We’re out
to repair the future. There’s an umbrella
by the door, not for yesterday but for the weather
that’s here. I say weather but I mean
a form of governing that deals out death
and names it living. I say weather but I mean
a November that won’t be held off. This time
nothing, no one forgotten. We are here for the storm
that’s storming because what’s taken matters.
SB: Thank you.
CR: You’re welcome.
SB: It brings you right back to that moment in 2020.
CR: And the one coming, I have to say. I don’t know about you, but I’m terrified about the next election cycle. Even more terrified than I am about our present moment. Because I haven’t ordered any iodine pills, but.… [Laughs] I don’t know what’s going to happen.
SB: I’d like to go back to a young Claudia Rankine growing up in Jamaica. And I was wondering if you could just tell me a little bit about your childhood there, or memories you have from before moving to the United States at age 7.
CR: It’s been so long. [Laughs] The only memory I have, which I think is not a memory—I think it’s something my mother might have told me, but now it is a memory because it’s what’s there. I remember going to school with my cousin, and her explaining to me that everyone goes to school. [Laughs] That’s not something you have a choice about.
I also know that where we lived had a view of the ocean, and ever since then, every house or apartment I’ve lived in I have not felt comfortable [in] unless I have a view. And it wasn’t till I was able to see where I lived growing up that I understood what that desire was, where it came from.
I came here when I was 6, and when it was time to go to college, I remember visiting Williams College, and it was so green and lush that I felt like, Oh, I want to go here to school. And again, it was a landscape recognition, even though the Northeast and the Caribbean are not exactly the same climate. There was a sense that this non-urban space was closer to something I had known as a child, even as I don’t really hold the memory of it in a photographic way.
CR: I grew up in the Bronx, in the North Bronx. I went to Cardinal Spellman High School, and Sts. Philip and James middle school. There were Catholic schools. You know, you just went to school. You came home. [Laughs] I remember going to the library at Pelham Parkway and I would take out all the books by a certain author, all the Beverly Cleary novels. The one thing I used to read a lot was the best plays of…. I don’t know if you ever saw these. They were like The Best Plays of 1946, The Best Plays of 1947. And then I would bring those home and I would read them. My mother would complain that the school was giving me too much homework because she thought the fact that I was staying up so late meant that I was doing homework, and I let her think that. And so I would stay up very late at night reading these, just systematically making my way through the shelves in the library.
SB: So books, literature, that was always kind of just osmosis. It just…. What about poetry? When did you start thinking about poetry?
CR: You know, I didn’t think that I started thinking about poetry till college. But I did remember that, very soon after coming to the United States, I received a lollipop for reciting Emily Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death”: “He kindly stopped for me —/ The Carriage held but just Ourselves —/ And Immortality./ We slowly drove — He knew no haste,” and something had put away something.
CR: And then just recently—my mother always spends Christmas with my family, my immediate family. And she was talking about…. I don’t know how we got on the subject, but she was talking about poetry. And then she started reciting all of these poems by Countee Cullen. And so I guess she must have been.… [Laughs] Because I always wondered how it is that I suddenly knew, in third grade, to recite Emily Dickinson, and it was coming through her, and she was sort of feeding me these poems, and making me memorize them. And then I didn’t think about it again until I started taking poetry classes in college.
SB: And I understand you studied with Louise Glück.
CR: Yes. I loved working with her because she was very particular. So when you have a professor like that, who likes nothing until they like something, it makes you feel like you’re working towards something. And she was very precise, and I think I learned to have a kind of discipline in her classes around what you accept as acceptable language. [Laughs]
CR: Rigor. That would be the word, yeah.
SB: Tell me a little bit more about your education and path as a teacher and in academia. When did it strike you that beyond teaching poetry, you wanted to explore whiteness as an area? Was there a moment when you thought, I really need to study, examine, and look at this? [Pauses] Or did it start when your mom told you, at an early age, “Don’t trust white people?”
CR: [Laughs] No, I think I was always interested in the ways in which the poet addresses the public. Issues that affected the private life. And I don’t think I ever felt, like so many white people, white poets, who teach in different programs, that political poetry was over here and real poetry was over here. And so I was always interested in poets like Paul Celan. And when I was in college, I went to Sligo to study on Yeats with [Richard] Ellmann and at the Yeats summer school. And it was specifically this ability to have language encompass everything that was in the landscape, but not leave the self behind. And I love that in Yeats’s poetry. Even if I don’t line up with his political positioning in terms of the politics of Ireland at that time.
And then I was really interested in Celan’s ability to switch his poetics after the Holocaust—to disallow language from completing an experience that cannot be completed. And so he made very conscious decisions to not create narratives that gave a whole story to his experience of the Holocaust. Because he didn’t want the Germans to feel like it was a done thing, it was a finished thing. And you can see it in the writing. So I was fascinated by his work as well. I also loved Cesar Vallejo’s work. Partly because, again, you had somebody who showed up emotionally, fully, in the work while still acknowledging that the world was broken, and complex, and violent, and that it was a thing to be negotiated.
So I think I started out just in deep admiration of these writers and following them, and then trying things out for myself as a writer. And for a while, feeling like, Oh, I’ll go to law school eventually. But I really want to figure out what language can do, and how you can use the language to fully engage the experience of being in the world.
SB: And I’m just struck by how this trilogy we were talking about earlier, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Citizen, and Just Us. The first two books are subtitled “An American Lyric.” Just Us is subtitled “An American Conversation.” And I was just wondering where you see this line between lyric and conversation and verse and prose. And could you talk about why you intentionally subtitled Just Us “An American Conversation”?
CR: I think for me, even though the sentence appears in Lonely and Citizen, the impulse is a lyrical impulse. The organizational principles of those two books were framed and pushed forward by a kind of poetics that had to do with the regular mechanisms of poetry, sound, all of that.
When I got to Just Us, I was interested less in the lyrical drive of the work and more in getting the conversations to be reflected on the page as close to what actually happened. Because I knew that the people I had the conversations with would read what I had written, and I didn’t want them to then come back and say, “No, that didn’t happen. That’s not how it went.” And if you are more concerned with sound, let’s say, than you are with having the thing reflect another thing, then different choices have to be made. In Just Us, I really was committed to reflecting and mirroring dynamics that were happening as closely as I could. And that did not feel in line with the lyrical impulse of the earlier books. And so it felt wrong to just continue on because I had done it in the two previous books.
You know what’s great about being a poet? Nobody’s waiting for anything you do, so you can just change up the rules. [Laughter] This is not James Bond. We don’t have to worry about the formula of James Bond’s films, and do the same thing again. And so, the thing that remains consistent in the three books is the point of view of the speaker. But the sentence rules Just Us in a way that it doesn’t Don’t Let Me Be Lonely or Citizen.
SB: And I would add that what they all share is this approachable rigor. There’s an ability through the language of all three books to be read by anybody. Understood by anybody. It’s an American voice. It is a voice that is as if you’re being spoken to, or in conversation with. And sometimes, in poetry, that totally gets lost. And I think that that’s something that’s a great strength of yours as a poet, but in particular those three books. There’s an ability, I think, to really connect with the reader in this very direct, visceral way.
CR: Well, that was very conscious. In Plot and The End of the Alphabet, the two previous books to Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, people would say, “What is this book about? I don’t know.” And I wanted, in these books, to create a transparency of language, so that anyone could read it, but that the history would drop in, and then kind of fall into its steps. So it was about, like, picking exactly the right words that carried all of the history, but [that] in initial contact seemed incredibly transparent.
That took the time, because it took a lot of stripping things back to be able to get to the word that brought the whole history with it, without having to put on an evening jacket, you know? And it was also necessary, because I wanted the reader to be able to have space for their own thoughts. And I know that sounds weird, but I really was structuring the books to make space for the reader. My mother said to me, There’s a lot of white space in these books. [Laughs] I said, “I know. But it was so that you could move around.” And I guess she knew too, because she noticed it. But it was literally to create spaces for rest. Spaces to move the…. To bring sight as well as thinking to the page, with the various images. And so for each book, a lot of imagination had to come to bear in terms of the form of the book. And how do you make the form hold the content and the reader at the same time?
SB: Yeah. There’s this incredible feeling of the seen and unseen. Like, what am I seeing on the page and what am I…? What’s not being seen? And I should add that it’s not all just text; you use visuals throughout these books and, in the case of Just Us, fact-checking, and these become tools for deeper exploration, deeper readings, and, to your point, metaphor—multiple understandings.
I’ve never wanted to reread something I had just read so quickly again. Sometimes I’ll read a book and put it down and I’m like, okay, maybe I’ll read that in a few years from now, but Just Us, for example, I probably read two or three times over the past two years. It’s just that kind of book—you keep going back to it.
CR: Well, thank you. That was Graywolf [Press], my publishing house, Jeff Shotts, and Fiona McCrae, and Katie Dublinski, Chance [Erolin]—I feel we were a little army putting that book together because there were so many moving parts that every time something shifted, something else shifted, and it was a lot of work to create. But I think in the end it did do the job I wanted, which is to make each page itself and then its own archive.
SB: So I know you might not be able to say what you’re doing next, but I am curious about conversations such as the one we’re having and future work, where you see the conversation that you’re having—that you’re working on—heading.
CR: You know, people ask me that a lot, and I ask myself that a lot. And I try not to make claims that I can’t hold to. I don’t know.
So much of what I write comes to me from the world. And I can tell you, I am watching [laughs] this world very closely right now. Experiencing, watching it. There’s been a lot of death, a lot of mourning. My very good friend Lauren Berlant passed away this summer. I have some other very compromised friends. So it’s been two years of a lot of public mourning, a lot of private mourning.
I don’t know what is next. I don’t even know what genre is next. I don’t know if it’s a book of poetry or another play, or…. I do know I’m working on a film with Katherine Gunn, who just did [Aggie]. And so we are working on a film called Meanwhile, in collaboration with Homi Bhabha. So that’s going on. I had to take a pause to work on Help, but now that’s done. I’m also teaching. I’m just trying to get to the summer [laughs], and then we’ll see. And I really am not holding back; I really don’t know. And I don’t want to know. I’m not interested in knowing until I know.
SB: You’ll keep looking. Observing.
CR: I’ll just keep looking. [Laughs] I do like the freedom of poetry—or being identified as a poet—in the sense that I have never felt like I have to know ahead of time. I can just meet it when it comes.
SB: We’ll end there. Thank you, Claudia.
CR: Thank you.
SB: Thank you for taking the time.
CR: Oh, thank you very much for having me.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on March 22, 2022. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity by Mimi Hannon and Tiffany Jow. The episode was produced by Emily Jiang, Mike Lala, and Johnny Simon.